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North Korea: Assessing the threat

From David Ensor
CNN National Security Correspondent

North Koreans rally in Pyongyang: Pyongyang says it will unleash a 'sea of fire' if the U.S. attacks
North Koreans rally in Pyongyang: Pyongyang says it will unleash a 'sea of fire' if the U.S. attacks

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CNN's Mike Chinoy reports on the struggles of North Korea to survive and the efforts of isolated leader Kim Jong Il to maintain power in the impoverished communist country.
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CNN's Tom Mintier reports on U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly's trip to South Korea to talk with President-elect Roh Moo-hyun about the standoff with North Korea.
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• Analysis: Assessing the threat 
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• Special Report: Nuclear crisis 

• Timeline: Nuclear development 
• Factbox: The nuclear NPT 
• Interactive: Yongbyon nuclear site 
NONPROLIFERATION PACT

The nonproliferation treaty is an international agreement that took force in 1970, encompassing 187 parties, including the five nuclear weapon states.

States with nuclear weapons pledged not to share that technology and others pledged not to attempt to acquire it.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was just a year ago that President Bush placed North Korea alongside Iran and Iraq in what he called an "axis of evil."

"By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger," Bush said in his 2002 State of the Union address.

It is a danger President Clinton once considered going to war to avert, according to former aides.

Plans were drawn up to bomb the Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing facility.

They were only shelved when, at almost the last minute, the North Koreans agreed to freeze their nuclear program.

Ashton Carter, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration, says that on today's evidence the need for a tough U.S. stance is more important than ever.

"A nuclear North Korea is a disaster," he says.

"We were willing to risk war to prevent that in 1994. I believe we should be willing to risk war now -- I hope it doesn't come to that and that diplomacy works."

North Korea has sold to others almost every weapons system it has ever developed.

The fear is if it built enough nuclear weapons, North Korea might also sell them.

Unknown quantity

The CIA estimates Pyongyang could already have one or two nuclear devices.

Some, like counterproliferation analyst Bruce Bennett with the U.S.-based RAND organization, say the numbers could be higher.

"There are Russian intelligence reports that a considerable amount of plutonium was smuggled to North Korea in the 1992 timeframe," Bennett says.

"If so the numbers they could have could be five or ten or potentially more."

Most at risk, if it ever came to war are the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea -- and the South Korean people.

Seoul is less than 100 kilometers from the DMZ, well within range of North Korean artillery.

North Korea has 1.2 million troops under arms equipped with two to five thousand tons of chemical weapons.

In the line of fire

"A ton of chemical weapons put into a city can probably cover an area of around a kilometer or more, in the right conditions," Bennett says.

"So having thousands of tons of chemical weapons is an immense quantity."

Japan -- and US forces there - -must worry too.

In 1999 North Koreans successfully test-fired a missile right over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

Many analysts believe North Korea's Kim Jong Il is bluffing with nuclear threats to gain U.S. attention and concessions.

But if it were to come to all out war, some analysts say even the U.S. mainland might not be immune.

Bennett says the possibility exists that North Korean agents could enter the United States with some form of weaponry.

"Probably biological weapons," he says. "That's the kind of thing that Special Forces would tend to use."

Few doubt that war with the United States would be suicidal for North Korea's leaders --that has always been the main deterrent.

But experts say the danger to the US -- in the event of some kind of miscalculation -- is growing.



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